Aquino Moves Up Again

November 14, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — George Aquino seems to have a knack for getting promoted.

Currently director of operations and marketing at Alticor’s Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Aquino feels “blessed” by his most recent promotion — being named general manager of Alticor’s new JW Marriott Hotel that’s set to debut downtown in the fall of 2007.

“I feel honored,” he said. “A JW Marriott in Grand Rapids? I never thought it would happen in Grand Rapids.”

The 340-room, glass enclosed, 24-story hotel will be the first JW Marriott hotel in the Midwest and one of only 35 worldwide, he said. The company says it only builds JW Marriot brand hotels “in the greatest cities of the world.”

Born in Manila, Philippines, Aquino moved to California to live with his father when he was 16 years old, and went on to attend the University of Iowa, where he majored in journalism. During his college years he worked as a server in a restaurant and became “really good at it,” he recalled.

“It was almost a natural for me. I think that’s when it started clicking that maybe this was something I ought to do. Also, out of desperation for good, home-cooked meals, I had started cooking and experimenting with the Philippine foods that I missed. All my fraternity brothers would come over to my apartment and try it out, and they loved it.”

The shared meal became an every Sunday event for Aquino and a half dozen of his frat brothers. He simply learned by doing, and over time expanded his culinary skills to include stir fry, Korean, Italian and other types of food. Perhaps some of those skills were inherited: His grandmother owned a catering business in the Philippines and was a “spectacular” cook.

After graduating from college in 1988, Aquino moved to Chicago. A friend of his worked for the Le Ciel Bleu French restaurant at Mayfair Regent Hotel in Chicago and encouraged him to apply as a server. To his disappointment, the human resources director and maître d’ of Le Ciel Bleu said he didn’t have enough experience in fine dining and would have to bus tables to earn his white coat.

“I felt almost insulted,” he remembered. “Here I was, well educated and with some experience in the restaurant business. It was tough on my ego because my friends were getting jobs at Arthur Andersen and the Chicago Tribune. I decided I was going to prove myself, so I took the job. I knew I would move up pretty quickly.”

Aquino committed himself to learning every minute detail of the hospitality business from the ground up. After a couple of months he was promoted to server, and a few months later moved up to restaurant captain. By the end of his first year with Le Ciel Bleu, he landed the job of maître d’. The following year he was promoted to director of catering, and a year after that to assistant director of food and beverage.

His early years in the business were among his most rewarding, he said, even though they included making $2.30 an hour, getting yelled at, and having to make hundreds of butter-ball pats by hand.

“Those four years probably set the foundation, because it really made me appreciate what the hotel business was all about, at least from a food and beverage standpoint,” Aquino remarked. “You have to taste the food every day, taste every sauce every day. Every food item on that menu — you’d better know every little detail about what it is so you can talk about it naturally with the staff and the guests.”

Aquino continued cooking and experimenting on his own time, too. His roommate was the executive chef of Le Ciel Bleu, and the two of them would regularly entertain 12 to 15 people in their small studio apartment. Around the same time he and a friend embarked on an 18-month lark to taste-test food all over the Chicago area, visiting everything from the greasy spoons to the most elegant fine dining establishments.

Aquino started looking for another job after getting word that the Regent International was going to close to make way for a condominium project. While considering a couple of job offers, he came across an ad in the Chicago Tribune for the position of assistant food and beverage director at a place called the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. He didn’t know anything about Grand Rapids, but industry insiders assured him that the Amway Grand was “phenomenal” and on par with any top-notch Chicago hotel. He applied.

“I thought, ‘This is a big hotel; it has 10 restaurants and a big food and beverage department. I can learn a lot,’” he recalled. “I’m a true believer in fate, and I knew there was a reason why I came to Grand Rapids.”

His career with the Amway Grand began in 1992. Two months into the job, he met his future wife, Elena. She quit her job at the hotel, giving the two of them the green light to date, and they married about a year later.

In his second year with the Amway Grand, he was promoted to direct the food, beverage and hotel operations at Peter Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands, a resort owned by the late Jay Van Andel’s family. Aquino and his wife lived nearly three years at the resort.

He returned to Grand Rapids in 1996 to become corporate director of operations at the Amway Grand. Before resuming duties here, he completed the executive management program at Cornell University and took cooking classes at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, now the Institute of Culinary Education.

From 1996 to 2000, Aquino also managed the Crystal Springs Country Club in Caledonia for the corporation, oversaw operations and marketing for Peter Island, and had a hand in the opening of the Plaza Towers in downtown Grand Rapids.

He was formally offered the job of general manager of the JW Marriott hotel in June of this year. Being tapped for that position at a JW Marriott anywhere in the world would be an honor, he said.

“But to actually see a JW Marriott in Grand Rapids — my hometown now — it’s really a gift. It gives me more reason to stay here. We’re getting the highest brand of Marriott; there’s only 35 of them in the world. I think this new hotel really solidifies that we’re (Alticor) in the right place at the right time.”

Aquino said the JW Marriott is being built primarily to accommodate DeVos Place convention center business, but he doesn’t expect to see 100 percent occupancy rates right away.

“Give us three to five years and our occupancy will reflect the market as Grand Rapids is able to compete for the larger convention pieces. I’m truly excited about opening a hotel that is an international brand and has its own identity. We’re working with companies now on what we envision this hotel is going to ‘feel’ like. We are going to be bringing in a lot of different people that have a wealth of knowledge … and a passion for the hospitality industry.”    

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